"What's wrong, Grandad?" Helping children understand dementia
When a much-loved family member is living with dementia, knowing how to talk to young children about what’s happening is vital.
It can be particularly confusing for younger children – they know something’s changed about grandma or grandad’s behaviour, but they don’t know why. Learning how to help them understand what’s happening may help.
“I think it’s understandable that a young child’s feelings might not be at the forefront of a family’s minds when they’re dealing with a diagnosis of dementia,” says Brighid Brodie, family clinician at Alzheimer’s Australia VIC. “It’s a stressful time and, particularly if a child isn’t asking questions, it’s easy to think they’re coping.”
But, says Brodie, children can be perceptive and can very quickly place themselves at the centre of things. “The danger is that by not talking to them, they can assume that the change in a grandparent’s behaviour is because of something they’ve done, and then start blaming themselves,” she says.
Here are a few suggestions to help you communicate with your young children or family members about dementia.
Break the ice
“Children often focus on how things impact them directly, so some questions may seem a little selfish,” says Brodie. “They may ask things like, ‘Will I have to share my bedroom if Nana moves in?’ But treat every question seriously and answer it with the attention it deserves.”
Share how you’re feeling
Seeing how a parent copes with difficult situations such as a serious illness in the family can help children learn valuable skills around managing painful emotions.
“If your child sees you crying about a loved one’s dementia, don’t try to brush it off by saying you’re fine,” says Brodie. “That will only confuse them.” Instead, be honest by using simple language to explain why you’re crying and how you feel.
If you need some support with caring for someone living with dementia, you can call Bupa's Aged Care Support Line who can give you tailored information and tips.